Howard Hodgkin, the widely lauded British artist whose exuberantly colored paintings often stretch beyond their wood panels and onto their frames, and conjure what he termed “emotional states” with just a few broad, decisive strokes or dabs of paint, died today at a hospital in London, according to Tate. He was 84.
Brilliant, rich colors nearly glow in Hodgkin’s best works, which he regularly painted on frames he scavenged from junk and antique shops. They can appear joyously extroverted, even wildly spontaneous, but he often worked on pieces over long stretches, setting aside a painting for years before returning to it to provide a finishing touch. “One of the few skills, as such, that I can be said to have acquired is to make the beginning and the end lie down side by side,” he told Anthony Lane in a 2003 profile in the New Yorker.
Though fame came to Hodgkin a bit later than it did to some of his contemporaries, he ended his career as one of Britain’s most well-known artists. In 1985, he represented the United Kingdom at the Venice Biennale. A decade later, he had a 20-year survey at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, a rare honor for a living artist. “For me it was a moment of truth—I hate to say that because it sounds far too pompous—but it was that,” he would later say, with a touch of his characteristic modesty.
Gordon Howard Eliot Hodgkin was born in London on August 6, 1932. His father worked for a chemical company and pursued horticulture as a serious hobby, while his mother, who was a housewife, sometimes made botanical illustrations. Looking at Hodgkin’s lush, vibrant work, it is difficult not to suggest a link back to his parents’ interest in the garden. At the age of six, he said, he was already determined to become a painter. At seven, he was evacuated to New York as World War II raged, returning to England three years later.
Hodgkin was a fitful student, and recalled in interviews frequently running away from school because he felt no support in efforts to take up art. He was told by a police officer who came upon him once that “an artist was a fine thing to want to be.” Asked to recall which school he was fleeing from that time, he replied, “I can’t remember. Eton, Bryanston, Pangbourne—I ran away from them all.” He also studied at the Camberwell Art School and the Bath Academy of Art, where he would later serve as an instructor. Did he enjoy teaching? “Yes, too much,” he said. “That means burnout.”
His early paintings, from the 1950s, were rough-hewn figurative pictures, which grew sharper and more crisply polished throughout the 1960s—inventive works that offer a potent painterly approach to Pop. In 1964, he visited India for the first time. The country’s art would be an enduring influence—Mughal painting, he once said, is “totally and shamelessly eclectic” (a bon mot that nearly fits his own work)—and the county itself would be a regular destination for him throughout his life. When I interviewed him on the occasion of a show at Gagosian Gallery in New York in 2011, he was about to depart on his latest trip there. What was on the itinerary? “Luxury hotels,” he joked, before conceding that he planned stops in Mumbai and Delhi.
But even as his art grew more adventurous, the 1960s were a time of immense frustration for Hodgkins. During that time, he once admitted, he contemplated suicide while standing on a tube platform in London, depressed about his lack of recognition and a comment that the artist Richard Smith made to him: “He said, ‘It doesn’t matter if you’re a painter or not.’ Just the kind of poisonous remark that stays in your head and tortures you.”
However, popular success would arrive in the 1970s. In 1976, he had his first retrospective, at the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, which was curated by a young Nicholas Serota, who would go on to become director of Tate. Three years earlier he had made his New York debut, at the Kornblee Gallery, before moving to Knoedler & Company, and then Gagosian, in 2004. (When visiting the city for a show, he made a point of having a Bloody Mary at the Carlyle Hotel.)
Though he had something of a reputation for being a difficult interview subject, because of his resistance to discussing the actual meaning or origins of specific paintings, he was open and almost self-effacing to a fault in conversation, conceding a lack of confidence in many of his works. “I’ve never felt I was a great success,” he told a journalist just last year. “For a while I felt like an outcast in the art world because nobody really seemed to take what I did seriously at all.” While he was regularly referred to—quite correctly—as one of the century’s great colorists, he often voiced disdain for that precise term. “It’s demeaning, really,” he told me. “It makes less of what one does.”
Hodgkin’s paintings, spare in size and seemingly concentrated in effort, can have the look of poetry, and he was beloved of literary types. Quoting Dylan Thomas, Seamus Heaney once proposed that Hodgkin’s paintings evince “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower,” as critic Jonathan Jones noted.
He was not prolific—his longtime assistant, Andy Barker, estimated that he painted perhaps 11 paintings a year—but his works reside in nearly all the important public collections in the United States and Great Britain, from the Museum of Modern Art and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. to the British Museum and the Tate Gallery. In 1991, Hodgkin provided painted illustrations for The Way We Live Now, a collaborative book with his friend Susan Sontag, responding to AIDS, and in 1992, he was knighted. “I very nearly didn’t accept it but then I thought it was taking it too seriously not to,” he quipped.
The pivotal 1995 Met exhibition traveled to the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth in Texas, the Kunstverein für die Reinlände und Westfalen in Germany, and the Hayward Gallery in London, and a 2006 show at the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin traveled to Tate Britain and the Reina Sofía in Madrid.
In 1955, he married Julia Lane, a fellow student at the Bath Academy, and he had two sons, though they would later separate, and he would become “an unwitting gay icon,” as Stuart Jeffries put it in the Guardian in 2012. He and the music critic Antony Peattie started a relationship in 1983 that continued until today.
Discussing his approach to color with Lane, back in 2003, Hodgkins told him, “E. M. Forster says you’ve got to bounce the reader,” before adding a line that feels as perfectly ambiguous as his own work: “You’ve got to grab them before they look.”